Dust off the false eyelashes and smack me in the face with a lump of glitter, it’s panto season again!
Like it or loathe it, panto is as essential to Christmas as pudding, and as essential to performers as a steam inhaler. It’s a British institution based on Christmas frivolity, the festive merriment of children and – for those in the entertainment industry – paying off January’s tax bill.
I have experienced panto life many times from either side of the curtain. Some of my panto highlights as a child are being called up to sing Wiggly Woo with Bobby Davro (a career-defining moment) and catching both sweets and a toilet roll from the Chuckle Brothers in Porthcawl Pavilion.
Some of my panto highlights as a seasoned performer are the time we managed to pass a condom around the stage during the encore without error, playing the ‘last one wearing the hat before lights up on act two’ game with the seven dwarves – and after many agonising rehearsals, finally managing to nail the entire original dance to Ant and Dec’s 90’s smash hit Let’s Get Ready To Rumble (which I still perform regularly at weddings in a quirky alternative to the first dance.)
This year I have hung up my stage tights and am spending Christmas at home, being both smug at the thought of a family Christmas and turkey sandwiches on the sofa ’til New Year’s Day – but secretly disappointed at the lack of glitter and adoration. So it is with the benefit of seasonal hindsight I am writing my top 5 tips for surviving Panto.
Tip 1. Pace yourself
I know you can hit that top note at the end of Journey’s Don’t stop Believing in full chest belt for 20 seconds. I know that, and so does everyone in your singing class at drama school. But doing that for 14 shows a week would leave Meatloaf himself as dry as an elephant’s flip-flop.
Little nine-year-old Amelia in seat 2G with her glitter wand and wide eyes doesn’t care if you use your chest, head or elbow voice whilst warbling out It’s Raining Men. But she will care if Aladdin can’t wish her a Happy Christmas because he sounds like Dot Cotton with laryngitis. Take it at a steady pace, it really is a marathon and not a sprint. Think ‘Elaine Page in Cats’ terms rather than An Evening With Nicole Scherzinger.
The first time I did panto I got over-excited and a bit over-ambitious about the staying power of my larynx in the first week and spent the remaining time drinking Sanderson’s throat gargle like holy water and bribing the sound guy with mince pies in an attempt to get him to turn my microphone up even more. If this happens to you – don’t panic. Steam like a Christmas pudding, sleep as much as you can and lay off the post-show gin frenzy until you’re back. Which leads me nicely onto…
Tip 2. Don’t burn the candle at both ends
As much as you will often want to stick your head into a large vat of mulled wine and source out the nearest late-night bar that plays 90s bangers in whatever strange town you happen to find yourself in – I will tell you this from experience.
There is nothing quite like the fear and guilt you feel as the lights go up on Act One and you hear the screams of thousands of little darlings high on jelly babies only to realise you are still sweating last night’s Jägerbombs all over your perfectly pressed Snow White satin gown.
There will at some point be an ill-advised 2am karaoke session and the whole cast will bond in solidarity with those most in hungover need. This is an important day for team building and should be treated as such. Aside from this though, my advice would be to proceed with caution.
Tip 3. Be nice to each other
There will probably come the point, namely, the 10am Boxing Day matinee, where you will feel some sort of intense annoyance towards everyone in the cast, especially including the child ensemble!
There will be a moment where you are so ‘panto-brained’ that when Fairy Funfluff once again forgets to bring in the cream pies on cue and ruins your gag that you could actually punch her in her glittery face. This is normal. But do try to remember Fairy Funfluff is just as away from home at Christmas and as knackered as you are. And she’s got that minging cold too. She’s trying her little Funfluff best.
You may not be besties come February, but right now you’re a family. And just like any family at Christmas – stuck together under a series of random unfortunate events and circumstances – you’ll probably get under each other’s skin at times. But if you have got over your uncle’s questionable political dinner table rants and your cousin’s inexplicably noisy chewing your whole life, you can for a few weeks get over Baron Hardup’s lack of hygiene and the fact that Dandini keeps taking backstage selfies and tweeting #BESTSHOWEVER #KINGOFPANTO after every. Bloody. Show.
Tip 4. Look after yourself
Panto is hard work. You’ll need to spend a lot of time treating yourself like the Queen or King Rat of showbiz that you are to get through it. Some handy tips from my helpful friends on Facebook on panto self-care include:
- Don’t eat a Chicken Legend Meal, Chicken Select, Chicken Bacon Wrap and McChicken sandwich before a show.
- Put a blow-up bed in your dressing room and learn the art of a power nap.
- Put a slow cooker in your dressing room.
- Order a pizza at the 5 because it will be in your dressing room once you finish the dance break.
- Befriend the front end of the cow – they have a lot of time on their hands.
- Buy large amounts of Berocca, Jakemans, Arnica, emergency sweets, Lemsip, and painkillers. You’ll need them.
Tip 5. Don’t forget the joy
There is a real joy to be found in Panto. Moments like:
- When you meet a little girl at the stage door and she genuinely believes you are Cinderella.
- When a kid gets so worked up during the ‘It’s behind you section’ they jump out of their seat and attempt to rush onto stage screaming at you in order to point out your near-fatal mistake.
- The people who are choosing to spend their Christmas Eve paying to see you in a cardboard washing machine costume singing At the Car Wash.
- Being able to make as many jokes about farts as you like and being applauded for it.
Panto is magic. It may not feel like magic on performance number #13 in a week, but it still is and you are still making a lot of people very happy. And when you are at your most tired, when you feel you may spontaneously combust if you have to do that dance break one more time just remember this is absolutely, definitely, 100% the last year that you are putting yourself through this.
…OH NO IT ISN’T!
Katie is an actor, singer and musician from Bridgend in South Wales, now living in London. She trained at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and has done some nice bits of work over the last few years that she’s chuffed with. Aside from this – most commonly known as Princess Elsa on weekends, she has also starred as Peppa Pig and Supergirl in various children’s parties across the UK. You may also recognise Katie from working in the returns section of Ann Summers Cardiff at Christmas 2010. Series regular of Judge Judy (playing ‘person watching it on the sofa whilst once again not in the gym’.)
Theatre photo – copyright Patrick Miara